Bad news is often broken to us when we wake up. This time around, however, the bad news broke out in the broad daylight of the demise of our President, HE Professor John Evans Fiifi Ata Mills. That was the black Tuesday, 24 July 2012, the first time a serving President in Ghana has died at post.
But trust the Ghanaian superstition, we immediately turned into astrologers interpreting the signs of the sky and the weather to show the kind of man he was. It was cloudy on the day of death depicting a great man had fallen. Nobody doubts his greatness but the association with the weather conditions is simply superstitious for we could have said the same thing if it had been sunny, windy, stormy, thunderous, or simply a bright day.
The eulogies that have poured in after the demise are simply marvellous but deserving. The most prominent of these attributes is his meekness and humility, temperance, courtesy, godliness and caring nature. When he paid two surprise visits to our (Accra Psychiatric) Hospital, the President stood up to greet poor me against my insistence to the contrary. I felt like hugging him and I realised he also wanted to hug but I restrained myself for fear of breaking protocol. I later wished I had damned the consequence and not restrained myself.
Among the jokes about Prof while he was alive is he would ask everybody at the Castle whether ‘I have greeted you this morning’, meaning his desire to be nice to everybody. Never would he make any pronouncement without dedicating it to God. He was truly spiritual. That reminds me of the tributes that poured after Baah-Wiredu’s death, and it gladdens my heart that there are such people around in the society. Tears are justifiably flowing from everywhere, from both sides of the divide, partly because he was a sitting President, partly because of the circumstances of his passing but also largely because of his own nature.
President Mills was so gentle and nice that he would not harm an ant or a fly. But that apparently was his weakness in politics which his critics criticised, for by that nature he would not crack the whip when he needed to, thus appearing not to be in control, and allowing hangers-on to have their way. The critics have asked whether such a character was actually cut for politics and at that highest level.
In the light of the outpouring of grief political allies have asked whether the grief being expressed by the political foes is not all crocodile tears. That, however, could be missing the spirit of politics by confusing one’s person with his political thoughts. Critics may have criticised the Prof’s governance and not his person, though truly some of his critics may have gone too far and attacked his person amounting to vilification. We hope the death provides the opportunity for us all to review what happened, is happening and should happen in the right lens.
Obviously there seems to be peace following the death though insinuations and counter castigations are still rife. These are exemplified by the names of the mourning cloths ‘Se asa’ [it is finished, shame unto you] and ‘Aboa bi beka wo a efiri wo ntoma mu’ [the enemy is from within you]. The Prof’s admirers interpret the seeming peace to mean that the Prof is living to his title of peacemaker, ‘king of peace’, and that he has paid the ultimate price and served as a sacrificial lamb. His critics would, on the other hand, interpret the same phenomenon of exit (not the method by death) from the political scene as good riddance while lamenting the process (death) as unfortunate and regrettable.
The circumstances of the President’s death are still not clear as we have not had any official position, neither is there any official denial of the media reports as, for example, that there was blood oozing from his nose and mouth, that the ambulance that rushed him to the 37 Military Hospital had no motorcade and therefore delayed on the way, that at 37 Hospital he was sent to the maternity ward, that there was no prior notification to 37 Hospital for preparation to receive the President. Was it that nobody had the telephone number for 37 Hospital, or perhaps the composure, to call? Where was the medical team at the time he was being rushed? That a 68-year old President, known (at least by his close associates) to be unwell all along did not have his medical team close by him 24/7? His sister said when she visited him on the day of death, the President complained of neck pains and one of his brothers went to buy collar neck for him. Where was his medical team? Why did it take his relatives to provide that? Too many questions are left unanswered. In the absence of official and credible answers the rumour mills are at play. We certainly need a post-mortem even if only to serve as example that all deaths must be certified as to the exact cause.
The accusations and counter accusations regarding the Prof’s death are part of the expected grief Ghanaians are going through. When a close relation dies we all go through a grief process of four stages: the stage of shock which manifests in one of three ways: exclamation like ‘ooooh’, or by collapsing, or by numbness in which one becomes speechless. When he recovers from the shock he moves on to the next stage of denial in which one says the death cannot be true, for ‘I just talked to him, I saw him on the television three days ago,’ etc. Somebody said he did not believe until a new President was sworn in. Another will say I will not believe until the body is buried. The third stage is the stage of guilt which is also a stage of blame and bargain. Three things happen, one may blame himself saying ‘I am to blame, if I had gone to tell him of my dream he would have been careful, if I had allowed him to rest he would have lived’; another would say ‘if these people had not vilified him he would have lived, if those hypocrites had allowed him to remain in the US for one month attending to his health he would have lived, if they had not forced him to trot and jug at the airport he would have lived so they killed him’, blame game; another would say ’oh God, let him live for six more months to complete his term’ - bargaining. All that is a recognised phase of grief reaction. So we may understand what we are all going through, as a nation, as only expressing our grief and it should not be suppressed. Indeed when grief is suppressed we get pathological or abnormal grief reaction in the form of depression and anxiety in the individuals.
Interestingly when people of peace die there is always confusion. The reason is simple. Their gentility prevented them from putting things straight while alive so people maintain different positions and hence the confusion. No wonder President Mills’ death is creating confusion even on the burial grounds. The confusion would not have arisen to start with if the funeral committee had been more broad-based and included the family, and if the committee had engaged in thorough consultation with the family. As to the timing of the funeral, given that we have elections in the next five months and the business of the government should proceed, I see nothing wrong. My surprise, however, is why nobody has considered Peduase Lodge for the burial. We should carve part of the Peduase Lodge or acquire a plot of land near the Lodge and develop it into Presidential Mausoleum.
As pacification for the family to forget about any intentions of future transfer of the remains, the funeral committee should make it part of the funeral expenses or commitment to the government to develop Otuam in memory of the Prof which is why actually the family is insisting on the burial there, for development and tourist attraction.
In all this a question has not been asked: did the President leave a will especially as he knew that his condition was a terminal one? If he did, did he indicate where he wanted to be buried? Did the funeral committee confer with the wife to know where the Prof indicated as his choice of final resting place or we have simply decided to ignore his choice?
My final point. Shall we take another look at the Presidential Transition Act, broaden it to cover Presidential Transition to the other world. In this broadened Act we should look at where to bury a President, both sitting and past, how to factor in the interests of the families and wives or husbands; we should also consider the appointment of the successor and vice, the timing and other such circumstances. I also suggest that the state should erect a memorial structure (library, etc) at the hometown of every president on his passing as substitute for the burial there, and this should be part of the Transition Act.
May I take this opportunity to congratulate and welcome the new President John Mahama and his Vice, Mr. Amissah-Arthur, and may we all be consoled in this difficult times of the passing of our President, particularly the widow, son, family and close friends and may we all learn a lesson or two from the Prof’s illustrious life.
*This tribute was first published in the Daily Graphic of Wednesday, August 18,2012 page 10 under the caption Emotions For A Beloved.
*Dr. Akwasi Osei is the Chief Psychiatrist,MOH/GHS;Medical Director,Accra Psychiatric Hospital.